Whenever the talk in Boggel’s Place turns to sheep farming (which is rather often), somebody will inevitably say something about wild dogs – those painted animals with the vicious hunting instincts. That they are a threat and capable of wreaking havoc, is above questioning, yet it is Vetfaan who usually gets up quietly to go and smoke his pipe outside. He knows not all vermin need to be shot on sight. No matter what their usual habits are and how much damage they have done in the past, he’d never forget the incident on his farm…
It happened towards the end of the 70’s, when he was a young lad on his father’s farm, but he can still recall those eyes when he found a wild dog caught in a wire snare out in the veld. Snares – as illegal as they were (and still are) – were used by some workers to trap small antelopes and rabbits. Of course Vetfaan’s father took a dim view of such practices, but this didn’t stop the trapping.
One day, while patrolling the fence around the farm, Vetfaan heard shrill yapping, a piercing cacophony of sound, emanating from a koppie just north of the fence. This was noman’s land, an arid wasteland where even the sparse Kalahari bushes didn’t attempt to grow, so Vetfaan climbed through the fence to investigate.
The wild dog had his foot caught in a wire snare and the animal must have endured torture for a considerable period of time. The animal was gaunt and in obvious distress. The howls of pain decreased to a whimper and Vetfaan approached as the animal cowered down on the ground. As usual on these patrols, Vetfaan was armed with his .22 rifle – in case he came across a mamba or some other danger.
There was only one way to address the situation. A few yards away from the animal, Vetfaan stopped to load the rifle. Putting the wild dog out of its misery was not only the humane thing to do, it would also prevent further stock losses on their farm. Vetfaan knew this. The wild dog, it seemed, also understood the inevitability of its demise. It lowered the once-proud head onto it’s trapped foot and waited. The wailing ceased.
In that eerie silence, the sound of the bolt ramming the bullet into the breech seemed unnaturally loud. Still, the animal didn’t react, except to close his eyes. Vetfaan lifted the gun. Took aim. Took up the slack on the trigger.
And couldn’t fire.
It just seemed so wrong: the animal was helpless, rendered incapable of escaping by the trap set by some heartless hand. Vetfaan was suddenly struck by the two wrongs: the trap – and the vermin caught in it. The wild dog, after all, was not on his father’s ground and had most probably done what it had been designed to do: hunting for prey. On the other hand, the trap was highly illegal and a coward’s way of hunting. If he killed the beast….would that be right?
He sat down on the red Kalahari sand and looked at the animal more intently. It was, indeed, a young male. Although gaunt and obviously fatigued, there was no denying that he used to be a magnificent animal. A live, healthy, magnificent wild dog. The animal opened his eyes to look at Vetfaan. He saw the silent plea: get it over with, will you?
Vetfaan shouldered the gun, took careful aim, and pulled the trigger. Despite the small calibre of the rifle, the boom of the shot seemed to echo over the veld forever.
For a while they remained as they were: wild beast and human frozen as silent statues under the blazing sun of the Northern Cape.
Then the animal moved it’s foot. Vetfaan could then see that only one toe of the one front foot was caught in the snare. The animal gave Vetfaan a last look – a lingering stare – before limping off. The bullet had gone true: snapping off the restraining wire that had kept the animal captive for so long.
Of course Vetfaan never told his dad.
It must have been a year later that he once again patrolled that fence. Acting on instinct he climbed through the fence at that spot to revisit the place where he had freed the wild dog. The shot-off wire was still there, rusting away in the veld.
That night he slept at the half-way spot like he usually did. The perimeter of the large farm was so long that his father had built a small stone hut at the place, especially for the cold winter nights when sleeping outdoors would have been very foolish indeed. The hut had a bed, a fireplace and a few candles – it was a simple shelter to rest in before setting out on the next leg of the patrol. Vetfaan ate his meagre meal, sat next to the fire for a while and turned in to sleep.
That night he heard the soft padding of feet around the hut. He wasn’t particularly worries as the door was shut and the embers still glowed reassuringly in the small hearth. That is, until he hear the soft growl…
Kalahari lions are unpredictable animals. In the vast open spaces of the Kalahari desert, their pale-gold fur serves as excellent camouflage, but that is maybe the only positive factor in their fight for survival. Stalking is extremely difficult and prey is scarce. These cats have learned to survive by eating almost anything they come across: from defying the quills of a porcupine, feeding on decaying carcasses and catching birds – to cannibalism. If it has meat, the lion will eat it.
Vetfaan stoked up the fire, checked the door and wondered how many puny .22 bullets would be needed to stop a lion. It became a long night of listening to the growling outside and the thumping of his heart.
Some time before dawn, the sounds outside ceased. Was the lion standing still? Or did it lie down in front of the door, scenting the fear of the human inside? Would it wait there until Vetfaan was forced to leave? The silence stretched out in an unbearable nightmare of possibilities…
Then, suddenly, there were sounds of a…scuffle? Running feet and indistinguishable sounds. Growls, Heavy breathing and more grunts.
And then…complete silence.
Once the sun started rising in the east, Vetfaan slid the bolt back to ease the door open to a crack. Nothing. No lion.
The only evidence of the night’s activity was the myriad of lion tracks all around the hut. Imprinted in the sand there was no mistaking the large paw marks of an adult lion.That, and the strange tracks of a wild dog, with one foot missing a toe.
Vetfaan once said that people are too quick to judge, especially when they insist on analyzing the past. The activists now baying for the removal of Cecil John Rhodes’ statue, his name from universities and even his remains from the Matopos, seem to think that they can rewrite the history of the continent. The current fashion is to blame people long dead for the hardships of today; while completely ignoring the fact that we are what we are because we refuse to face the simple fact that we have inherited the world the way it is. We can’t change history. But we can learn from it.
And, like that wild dog, it is sometimes excitingly worthwhile to remember that very few people were just good or just bad. The Rhodes Trust with the Rhodes scholarships have benefitted more than 7000 students from Australia, Bermuda, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Jamaica & Commonwealth Caribbean, Kenya, New Zealand, Pakistan and Southern Africa. Notable world figures gained from these scholarships, including heads of state like: Bob Hawke, Wasim Sajjad, Bill Clinton, Dom Mintoff, John Turner and Tony Abbott.
In Vetfaan’s mind. shooting that helpless wild dog because of its perceived history would have been wrong. Sadly, he also reckons the activists won’t stop. They’ve trapped Cecil John Rhodes in a wire trap. They’ve snared Jan van Riebeeck. Who’s next? Paul Kruger? Queen Victoria? Any historical figure with an European surname?
His message is simple: live and let live…but please get on with life…